MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Straight-Jacket’

Movies can never again be so corny, campy and PC clumsy as some of the howlers of the 1950s and ’60s. But “Straight-Jacket” has a spiffy and gay (both senses) time joining the party.

Richard Day first wrote it as a play, produced off-Broadway in 2000. He has swanked it into an amusingly silly movie, using the fact-based, sub rosa scandals of male studio stars who were gay but covered by agents, publicity, lawyers, payoffs and (in the brief case of Rock Hudson with Nancy Gates) arranged marriages – but mainly camouflaged by the fact that most fans (mostly female) didn’t want to know the truth.

Now the hetero facade is ’50s idol Guy Stone, whose acting is balsa wood heading to cement. His private life is flamboyantly homosexual. Matt Letscher plays him as a letch, a boy magnet whose cool is streamlined, almost kidney-shaped. He-mannequins line up for him – he’s a star!

Of course, Guy is fully committed to hypocrisy, and his ambition to star in SRO Pictures’ new version of “Ben-Hur” is not unhinged even by night photos of him being hauled by cops out of a gay bar. The secretary of mogul Saul (Victor Raider-Wexler), a ditz named Sally (Carrie Preston) who adores Guy, is eager to be locked into a sham marriage even if that means she has less swingin’ time at the Hammond organ.

While Guy’s sniping gay manservant is amused, Guy feels marriage as dismal confinement. And why not? It’s an Ike Era conformity pod of Jell-O-molded hokum. Guy squirms, writhes and oozes wisecracks (Letscher has a way with them – his zingers are like lizards in a jacuzzi).

Guy’s emancipator is gay writer hunk Rick Foster (Adam Greer). He might be Ayn Rand’s idea of a statue celebrating potency, though his politics are not hers. Not just a poster boy but a billboard of naive Stalinism, Rick proudly belongs to the American Communist Party (prompting Matt’s line, “Where do they get off calling it a party?”).

In fact, Rick improbably sold a leftist coal-mining drama to SRO, despite Saul’s dictum, “If anyone has a message, he’s fired!” Of course, with anti-Reds sniffing and snarling from Washington, Rick’s message is not simply castrated but suffers a political sex change – the brisk humor of this might have been welcome during the Elia Kazan Oscars brouhaha.

“Straight-Jacket” goes rather lame when not dishing up retro jokes and gay cherry bombs. Even old, winking snarks about dith Head or Agnes Moorehead – Veronica Cartwright has a vivid time bossing and fuming as the resident lesbian here – can only deliver so much value.

The dominating star, apart from Letscher, is hipster production design by Kristen McCarron and Mark Worthington, given added curvature by set decorator Katherine LeBlond and Michael Pinkey’s zappy photography. Terrific use is made of sets that are form-fitted to 1950s architectural models.

If Day goes somewhat wrong in this Lava-lighted labor of leering love, it is not in his fondness for double-entendre. It’s that he really seems to take the gay liberation message at the end seriously – which is rather like pulling the Declaration of Independence out of a Cracker Jack box (hmmm, sounds like a Nic Cage vehicle).

But the laughs are more than occasional in this cocktail party picnic basket. And sometime, somewhere, somebody will put Day’s film on a shared bi-sex bill with Joan Crawford’s “Strait-Jacket.”

A Regent release. Director, writer: Richard Day. Cast: Matt Letscher, Carrie Preston, Adam Greer, Carrie Preston, Veronica Cartwright and Victor Raider-Wexler. Running time: 1 hr., 36 min. Unrated. 2 1/2 stars.

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